DUP ran 47 Maze visits: Party accused of 'ill-conceived charm offensive' on peace centre
A quarter of all organised tours at the controversial Maze/Long Kesh prison site in the last three years were arranged by members of the DUP.
The party's MLAs and MPs have sponsored dozens of fact-finding visits, taking in tours of the H-Block where paramilitary inmates were held and the hospital where 10 republicans died on hunger strike.
The 17 DUP MLAs and MPs who have sponsored visits include Peter Robinson and deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who previously warned the site would become a terror shrine if key buildings were retained.
While the DUP insisted the visits were part of its consultation process on the future of the Maze, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said it was further evidence of a "confused and untenable" position.
"The DUP have argued consistently that they did not want those buildings retained, but against that there were times when they held the ministry for the Department of the Environment, and they didn't try to de-list the buildings and have them demolished," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Now on top of it comes this evidence, that their senior politicians – MLAs and others – were continuously facilitating tours of a terrorist shrine.
"Their position is untenable – simply confused and untenable."
Between September 2010 and August this year, when all public access to the prison buildings on the site ended after the DUP's decision to pull out of plans for a peace centre, some 191 visits were approved by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Each visit was sponsored by an MP or MLA.
Details of the sponsors were released by OFMDFM after a Freedom of Information request from this newspaper.
Around a quarter of the 191 visits – 47 – came from DUP MPs or MLAs.
Mr Robinson signed off eight in the last year, while East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas sponsored another six.
North Belfast MLA William Humphrey sponsored five, while Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson arranged three.
Both Mr Humphrey and Mr Donaldson confirmed they were present on at least one of the tours. Mr Donaldson said his visits had been organised as part of a DUP's consultation process.
"As part of our consultation about the proposals for a peace centre we took various people, including the Orange Order and some victims' groups," he said.
"We have made clear we are in consultation with a wide range of people.
"Some of these people asked to see the site and view the retained buildings to get an idea of what was involved.
"None of the visits that I facilitated were people engaged in anything other than a consultation. It certainly wasn't educational or tourism."
Mr Humphrey said he had facilitated visits after being approached by groups in his constituency.
"People obviously have different views and come from a different aspect and position, and it was to better inform themselves about the whole concept of what should happen to the Maze," he said.
"Effectively, I facilitated people in the community being better educated around the issues.
"People have different views and I wanted them to see for themselves and make up their own mind.
"My position is very clear on this one. There is no community confidence for there to be a peace centre at the Maze."
TUV leader Jim Allister said the visits were part of an "ill-conceived charm offensive".
"The people who now are peddling the U-turn line and justifying that are the very people who were in the business of trying to sell the Maze project to those they were bringing up there," he said.
Most of the other visits came from the SDLP and Sinn Fein, with Gerry Kelly sponsoring 88 tours.
Other figures published by the BBC yesterday showed OFMDFM gave approval for 443 visits to the buildings in the last five years, including 97 between January and July this year, before Mr Robinson put the planned European Union-funded peace centre on hold.